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Skyliner is dedicated to the pursuit of rare and fascinating art and architecture, and the hidden histories contained within the concrete of a city. 
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Aytoun Street Employment Exchange

Farewell to a modernist monolith of Manchester. Exploring the former employment exchange on Aytoun Street during its final days.

 
 
 

The monolith that is the former employment exchange on Aytoun Street has a frustratingly uneventful past. Normally in this situation I would scrabble around for months in the deepest depths of Facebook nostalgia groups looking for a former employee who could tell me something about its past. Even a rumour, even a lie. Come on Manchester there's got to be an anecdote out there. 

Once, yeah, this guy signed on here and none of us liked him, and he was as work-shy as they come - always just knocking around Riley's pool halls all day, chain-smoking and drinking a skinful when he should have been at an interview. Well, a few years later we were snowed in and had to spend the night there with just a Twix from the vending machine for dinner, we had the TV on in the staff room and it was only him looking back at us, wearing a waistcoat like he was a hotshot! John Virgo it was! No wonder he didn't want to work in Poundland

But this is an entirely fictional scenario that I made up, and John Virgo is from Salford and had he been signing on he would have been at the wrong office entirely.

So what is there to say about the building if there are no stories to speak of? I've traced former employees, I lied to you about not managing to do that, and each of them said that it was a miserable place to work - oppressive in design, cheap and flimsy, and poorly lit. The architectural notes in the Pevsner don't differ much from this bleak opinion either "brick, thin and cheap" is all they have to say about the place. But nonetheless I love the building, and I know it's difficult to see why - I really do, but trust me it has its merits.

The building was designed by David Thomson in 1936 but when the war broke out the building work was suspended again until 1948 to finally open in 1951. It was a long time coming, a very long time, and was so austere in design that one would think it was in fact designed after the war, not before. 

What I love about this place is the starkness of its facade, the way it feels like a set from 1984, and how in contrast to the regimented entrance on Aytoun Street, the side of the building is almost provocative with its sensual curves that rise from a blue-toned brick skirt just above the canal.

The scant modernist development is devoid of decoration except for what looks like an iron railing decorated with "G.R" which was a flourish of detail added when the building was taken over by E H Montague Ebbs, an architect for the Ministry of Truth Works.

The windows are generally small and of little interest apart from the occasional exception including one long window above the doorway, another much longer one around the canal side, and if you look a little higher to the top of a stairwell there's a couple of porthole windows. These in their scarcity seem like an accidental addition to the otherwise uniform design.

It's this same alluring side view where the longest window and the portholes can be found that on closer inspection has a prison-like quality to it. It looks as if there's an exercise yard on the roof with row upon row of windows set back from it where guards can keep a watchful eye on their inmates. It's then that the canal starts to resemble a moat to keep people in, or out, and you notice the three floodlights and imagine them sweeping the length of the water in the search of escapees. 

Now one thing that did entertain me when looking into the site was the story behind the street itself. Aytoun Street is named after opportunist land-owner and all round cad Roger Aytoun. Aytoun inherited the land as part of the Minshull estate when he married the elderly widow of Thomas Minshull, Barbara Minshull. In 1769 Aytoun caught Minsull's eye by running a naked race across Salford's Kersal Moor, and one month later they were married (although during the wedding ceremony Aytoun was so drunk that he had to be held up). 

Some five years after Minshull's death Aytoun had already exhausted his wealth and a major extravagance had been in setting up his own regiment for which his recruitment process was simple. Aytoun would walk the streets of Manchester fighting people, if he won the fight the loser was recruited whether he wanted to be or not. This inclination to fight, and to win, earned him the nickname of Spanking Roger. 

The employment exchange has been closed since 1993 and abandoned ever since. It's currently in the process of demolition with just two storeys of the facade remaining at the time of publication. A piece of Manchester modernism obliterated. The demolition also means farewell to one of Manchester's original Space Invaders. 

The building will be replaced by a new four star hotel

Images by Stephen Marland

 

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